This essay examines social media discourse related to drag queens, Disney, and Dolly Parton for what it says about how anti-queerness intersects with the present political and cultural obsession with parents’ responsibility to protect their children from “harm.” By analyzing tweets collected from the summer of 2022, I demonstrate the ways in which pedagogy and nostalgia help explain how users evaluate contemporary “threats” to children. Users want to know what children are learning, from whom, and in what context (pedagogy); at the same time, users invoke a reverence for the past (nostalgia) as they try to interpret what they are experiencing in the present. Twitter users’ concerns about children center on “fears” related to gender identity and sexual orientation, for instance, “exposing” children to queerness. This discourse is part of an unsettling trend in which anti-queerness is masquerading as concern for the nation’s children.
This essay examines the relationship among a number of highly publicized events related to drag queens, Disney, and Dolly Parton for what social media discourse can tell us about the ways in which anti-queerness intersects with the present political and cultural obsession with parents’ responsibility to protect their children from “harm.”
By analyzing tweets collected from the summer of 2022, I demonstrate the ways in which the lenses of pedagogy and nostalgia help explain how users evaluate contemporary “threats” to children. Users want to know what children are learning, from whom, and in what context (pedagogy); at the same time, users invoke a reverence for the past (nostalgia) as they try to interpret what they are experiencing in the present and their hopes for the future. Twitter users’ concerns about children center on “fears” related to gender identity and sexual orientation, for example, “exposing” children to queerness. Much of the Twitter discourse reinforces cissexist and heterosexist norms1 and uses problematic language related to “grooming.”2
Using access to the full archive of Twitter’s api (application programming interface), Sarah Koch, my undergraduate student research assistant, and I conducted extensive coding of hundreds of social media posts associated with the key terms “child,” “parent,” “drag queen,” “Disney,” and “Dolly Parton” during the politically volatile summer of 2022. Twitter trends are often closely connected to what’s making the news. Drag queens were in the news as far-right protesters disrupted a children’s drag queen story hour taking place at a public library in San Lorenzo, California.3 Disney made headlines for the Disney-Pixar film Lightyear, which came out in June of 2022 and featured the company’s first same-sex kiss.4 Below, I situate these events, and others related to singer and cultural icon Dolly Parton, within a larger series of events that took place at the end of 2021 and during the first half of 2022 that provide additional context for understanding “fears”5 related to children. The choice of drag queens and Disney is strategic because, as opposed to issues like gun control versus gun rights and pro-choice versus anti-abortion, they have been more recently pulled into the political spotlight as issues related to core American values under “threat.” News coverage of drag queens and Disney that summer was brimming with stories that very clearly encouraged readers and listeners to think about childhood, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Twitter provides a unique opportunity to take the temperature of political and cultural discourse since it acts as a real-time archive of public sentiment on the issues users view as most relevant to their lives and worldviews.
As I will discuss in a little while, tweets about drag queens and Disney shared themes related to parenting, childhood, and pedagogy. For both, users commented on the construction of childhood, content appropriateness, sexual abuse/violence, and gender and sexual identity. On the whole, users lamented what children are being “exposed to” these days. Connections also arose among tweets about drag queens and Disney and the themes of parenting, childhood, and nostalgia. Many tweets about drag queens and Disney expressed a generalized “fear” of what is being normalized, often couched within bigoted language. In contrast to both drag queens and Disney, however, Dolly Parton was celebrated uniformly on Twitter.
What does Twitter chatter about drag queens, Disney, and Dolly Parton say about societal “fears” around changing childhoods, anti-queerness, and the politics of parenting at present?
In November of 2021, Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin won Virginia’s governor’s race on a platform that included speaking out against the “threat” of critical race theory (crt) in public schools.6 While Youngkin argued that crt teaches children “inherently divisive concepts,” critics pushed back saying that legislation banning discussions of race more generally in the classroom would be harmful for children. Early in 2022, Republican Governor Greg Abbott of Texas directed the Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate families who supported their transgender children with transition-related care, suggesting such support is a kind of child abuse.7
In March of 2022, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida signed into law the Parental Rights in Education bill, which prohibits content related to sexual orientation and gender identity in K-3 classrooms.8 DeSantis claimed the law was about protecting parents’ rights to teach their children about gender and sexuality; opponents of the law, who termed it “Don’t Say Gay,” said it would alienate lgbtq+ students and remove important support systems. After a brief silence, Disney, which has a theme park with a longstanding presence in Florida, vowed to fight to repeal the law as part of the company’s commitment to lgbtq+ employees, audiences, and children.9 Also in March, a Republican lawmaker in Kentucky questioned the content appropriateness of the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, a program that has given free books to preschoolers throughout the world.10
On April 2, 2022, Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee tweeted against both crt and Disney, putting them into the same “bin” as part of “the left’s” broader assault on “American values”;11 Blackburn bemoaned that Disney parks would no longer say “ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls” – they have shifted to “dreamers of all ages” – and that crt is part of school curricula.12 Later in April, Governor DeSantis made moves to revoke Disney’s special tax status within the state of Florida.13 In the wake of DeSantis’s public criticism of Disney, conservatives began accusing the media giant of having a sexual “agenda” and “grooming” its child audiences.14 Conservatives called for vacationers to “cancel” Disney parks and choose Dolly Parton’s “more wholesome” Dollywood instead.15
In May of 2022, after the horrific shooting of ten Black shoppers in a Buffalo supermarket just days before,16 19 students and two teachers were murdered with an ar-15-style assault rifle in a Uvalde, Texas elementary school.17 People across the country were outraged by the senseless death of young children. Hours after the shooting, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Republican candidate for governor in Arkansas, promised to make children as safe “in the womb” as they are in the classroom.18
In early June of 2022, a video surfaced of kids at a Pride-related drag show in Dallas, Texas. Soon after, legislators in Texas and other states promised legislation banning children from drag shows.19 On June 8, Miah Cerrillo, an 11-year-old survivor of the mass shooting in Uvalde, testified before Congress as part of an effort to motivate political action on gun control legislation.20 Cerrillo described smearing herself in a classmate’s blood and playing dead amidst a pile of backpacks. Then, on June 12, a drag queen story hour was interrupted in a library in Alameda County, California by the neo-fascist extremist group, the Proud Boys. They stormed the gathering in shirts emblazoned with ak-47s while shouting anti-gay and anti-trans slurs in front of preschoolers.21 Disney released the film Lightyear on June 17. The film’s same-sex kiss generated some backlash, both in the US and globally.22 On June 24, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, ending the constitutional right to abortion. While the association was not new, Twitter users reminded the public of the contradictory nature of being “pro-life” but doing little to prevent school shootings or to lift children out of poverty. In a campaign speech on June 25, Republican Representative Mary Miller from Illinois (mis)stated that the overturning of Roe v. Wade was a “historic victory for white life.”23 Miller had been condemned previously for saying Adolph Hitler was “right on one thing”: the importance of the political indoctrination of youth as a way of controlling the future.24
On July 4, 2022, there was another mass shooting, this time in Highland Park, Chicago, Illinois, in which seven people were slain including the parents of a 2-year-old boy.25
These events provide context for the popularity of fears related to children and parenting on social media last summer. From book challenges26 to M&M candies,27 attention to children as at risk of improper socialization has continued. In what follows, I analyze this attention in terms of the increasingly prevalent and unsettling trend of anti-queerness.
Politics of/on Social Media
Social media platforms like Twitter have become vibrant, and often vitriolic, spaces on which users hash out their opinions, politics, and worldviews. Elsewhere I have explored social media as a platform through which both community and disunity are forged.28 Users construct their own identities as members of particular communities (i.e., we) in opposition to other communities (i.e., they) such that one’s identity as a member of a community (e.g., gun control advocates) actually depends upon the existence of the opposition (e.g., second amendment supporters).29 As I will discuss, users have divergent points of view about issues related to parenting, too. Specific tools of social media like hashtags make quick work of finding collectives of like-minded users;30 however, the reverse is just as easily true, as hashtags along with trolls and bots index antagonism and amplify negativity, respectively.
Thus, in terms of engaging with political ideas and arguments, there is someone with whom to argue or agree twenty-four hours a day. Tweets that create divisions are popular. Divisive tweeting merges with confirmation bias and echo chambers online,31 the boundary enhancing potential of social media,32 and heightened polarization among Americans generally.33
Parents and Alloparents
Points of view on issues related to childhood and parenting have overtaken social media platforms like Twitter lately, and true to how social media political conversations typically play out, they are contentious. While the issues are varied – from drag queens to Disney, and bullets to book bans – many have converged on the relationship among parenting, children, and harm.
Social media wars over parenting specifically tend to be consistent with how children are culturally constructed in the United States to be products of the (in)actions of adults who reared them, that is, vulnerable or dependent: “The belief that children require special care and attention evolved alongside the conviction that what adults did mattered to their development.”34 This view contrasts with understanding children to be autonomous and responsible.35
Often the socialization of children is not solely the endeavor of the adult members of a nuclear family. In the United States and elsewhere, many parents, busy with the work of making a living, rely upon various “surrogates,” like schools, extra-curricular activities, daycares, babysitters, and even media (e.g., television shows and movies), to relieve some of the pressure associated with monitoring their children. Indeed, scholars have shown that parents across time and cultures have depended on other people to collectively socialize their children, what’s known as “alloparenting”: “mothers and fathers, grandparents, other female and male relatives, and boys and girls in the community all help feed, teach, and care for children…. [W]e evolved to be a collaborative and creative community.”36 Parents and alloparents of all kinds teach children how to be proper members of society.
But whenever children are concerned a lot more is at stake: “[t]hat which is putatively about children…is never strictly about them. It’s rather about all the subterranean moral values and beliefs we theoretically agree to disagree about so that we can all just get along.”37 If what to do for and about children is a central preoccupation of our present political moment,38 then what acceptable parenting looks like cannot be far behind. And if the necessarily large cast of characters charged with parenting children in the United States is increasingly made suspect – even accused of being threats themselves, as Disney seems to be at the moment – then parents are likely to have a problem meeting a basic requirement of parenting as it has been constructed in many societies: protecting their children from harm.39
Parents as Managers of Risk
In Parenting Culture Studies, Lee and colleagues define the notion of “parental determinism,” as “a form of deterministic thinking that construes the everyday activities of parents as directly and causally associated with ‘failing’ or harming children, and so the wider society.”40 The notion of parenting in Western societies, they explain, is at least as old as industrialization,41 but has acquired new meanings in the present in “an explicit focus on the parent and their behaviour that emerges as the general, distinctive attribute of the contemporary term ‘parenting’ and the determinism it brings with it.”42 The parent-child relationship is no longer one of “informal” guidance based on the parents’ own experience; it is a relationship shaped by the parents’ own education as they seek guidance from outside experts.43 What’s more, bad parenting is often to blame for a variety of social ills.44 A view of parents as protectors and children as vulnerable is not one that holds cross-culturally.45
Risk, in various ways, has been associated with the rise in this kind of thinking about parenting. Risk in the case of parenting often comes as “speculative threats,” or unknowns that may be hazardous to children.46 Parents as protectors have thus become “managers of risk.”47 Cultural outlooks on society have shifted such that society itself is said to put children at risk (it is toxic, immoral, violent, dirty, etc.).48 Consequently, children are vulnerable and should be monitored.49 Along with pressures to manage children’s risk come certain moral imperatives, which are reinforced by people close to parents (family, friends), schools, physicians, politicians, places of worship, the media (including social media), among others. The moralizing of risk management does a couple of things: first, it begins to create new norms under the guise of “best practices” backed by experts;50 second, it causes the focus to fall back on individual parents for parenting in the wrong way by not managing risk well enough (e.g., letting them read or watch “bad” things).51
The management of risk for children connects the present to the future. In a cultural context that associates risk and parenting, parents may worry that their children are under the constant risk of improper socialization. Thus, our society becomes one in which adults are both the protectors of children and those who pose them the greatest risk.52
The Role of Pedagogy in Parenting
In their survey of the cross-cultural ethnographic literature on parenting, childhood, and socialization, Lancy, Bock, and Gaskins note that common to many ethnotheories of socialization is the idea that children learn best on their own through observation and peer contact; adults, parents or not, are not considered “teachers.”53 This, they say, contrasts sharply with contexts like the United States in which children have designated spaces and times for learning, namely classrooms with teachers.54 Of course, in addition to traditional educational spaces, children have exposure to other socializing influences. For the purposes of this essay, drag queens, Disney, and Dolly Parton are kinds of socializing influences – parental “surrogates” – with the potential to teach children lessons about the world and each other. Each one of these entities functions within settings commonly charged with socializing children in the United States like homes, schools, and libraries. In the case of powerful influences with significant reach, like Disney, scholars have called this teaching role “public pedagogy,” or “the articulation of knowledge to the shaping of values and experience.”55 What children learn is intimately connected to how they treat other people, how they understand their parents and their parents’ choices, and how they themselves may choose to parent if they become parents in the future – the kind of people they turn out to be.
Learning can be a political act. This is made apparent in social justice literature in what Harro calls the “cycle of socialization.”56 The cycle of socialization is a framework that explains how children enter the world without any preconceived notions but then, over time, through various familial, cultural, social, and institutional frameworks, form their understandings of themselves and others, understandings that can be very hard to change once reinforced time and again. Thus, in terms of our present political debates, what children are learning now, either about the past (e.g., debates over crt in K-12 schools) or the present (e.g., the terminology associated with gender and sexuality diversity), shapes who they will become in the future as individuals (e.g., their own identities), as members of the family, as people in community with others (e.g., as allies), and as members of society.
This understanding of children’s learning is hashed out vociferously on social media, as I will soon demonstrate.
The Role of Nostalgia in Parenting
In the most common sense of the term, nostalgia is a “longing for what is lacking in a changed present . . . a yearning for what is now unattainable, simply because of the irreversibility of time.”57 The literature on nostalgia suggests that a longing for the past may be a way to distort history, cling to privilege, and resist social change – in other words, nostalgia is a conservative reaction to rapidly changing social contexts that may threaten one’s perception of self and social advantages.58
However, nostalgia has other dimensions. Stewart describes nostalgia as an anchoring force in “the disorganizing and all pervasive economy of late capitalism,”59 a balm for when “the self is a pastiche of styles glued to a surface.”60 In her analysis of West Virginians experiencing a collapsed coal economy, Stewart sketches a picture “exiles in their own homeland,”61 folks who must “continuously reinscrib[e] places on a place whose meaning is emptying out.”62 At the same time, nostalgia brings hope, the belief that any second now things will turn around.63 Nostalgia, from this perspective, is a source of resistance, a refusal to accept change and assimilation.64
Essential to discussions of nostalgia has been the consideration of the relationship among time, space, and the self, personhood, or other dimensions of identity.65 Scholars have also complicated the idea that nostalgia is a solely a melancholy emotion66 or only about the past, as in exclusive of the present or the future,67 or beholden to a linear progression of time.68 Lems and Gilbert redefine nostalgia as generative and relational, as bringing about new understandings of self in time-space and in relation to others, including the researcher. Lems, Gilbert and others are broadening the very definition of nostalgia.
Parenting often involves elements of nostalgia, especially as parents think back to their own experiences growing up in relation to the decisions they make for their children. Some parents may have fond memories of their own childhoods and want to recreate those circumstances for their children, for instance. The complex temporal dimensions of nostalgia are also evident when children are involved. Nostalgia may be future-oriented and an important factor motivating change: “descendants are envisaged as not only carrying on, but also, and more importantly, developing upon the achievements realised in the past.”69 Thus, nostalgia has a role in parenting and may be one way that parents deal with change.
Indeed, nostalgia is a tool to deal with a variety of pressures: fear, uncertainty, and discomfort.70 Parenting can be full of these pressures71 and is often framed as such in the United States context. For example, the covid-19 pandemic has generated a special and ongoing kind of parenting turmoil.72 In the United States, controversies over virtual learning and school closures as well as debates over public health measures as they relate to children (masks, distancing, and vaccines) have put parents on edge; school board meetings have devolved into heated arguments.73 At least in part, parents may be responding to covid-19’s disruption of their ability to recreate what they view as perfect, productive, or safe childhoods for their children.74 Additionally, parents may worry their children will depart in their worldviews from what they themselves believe and therefore not reproduce those worldviews in the future, feelings that I argue may be driving some of the tweets I analyze below.
Twitter Chatter on Parenting, Children, Drag, Disney, and Dolly
I have been approved as an Academic Researcher through Twitter’s Developer Portal. Using the various permissions I have in this role along with Postman, software that allows me to do targeted searches of the full archive of Twitter’s api, I was able to search for tweets with the keywords “children” and “X” and “parent” and “X” with “X’ being “drag queen,” “Disney,” or “Dolly Parton.” For the search associated with “drag queen,” I pulled tweets from June 12, 2022, the day that the Proud Boys stormed a drag queen story hour in Alameda County, California. For both Disney and Dolly Parton, I was trying to assess people’s reactions to these cultural icons more generally during the summer based on what was going on in the news cycle and thus pulled tweets from several dates in July. No tweet analyzed came outside of the month of July. I focused on issues related to drag queens and Disney during June and July of 2022 given the considerable news coverage they received during that time (see “The Events” above) and the ways in which their coverage highlighted their influence on children, particularly in terms of questions related to gender identity and sexual orientation. I chose to include Dolly Parton since her influence includes literacy campaigns (as do drag queens) and theme parks (as does Disney), both of which involve children; Dolly is also associated with a sense of nostalgia for many, which I discuss below.
Postman is an effective way to quickly collect tweets and thus extract and examine ongoing Twitter conversations on a given topic. I worked with Sarah to code the tweets and identify prominent themes. We focused on the first 50 tweets generated per topic, which we found were more than enough such that few new themes emerged with each additional tweet. Manually coding tweets is a useful way to read for tone – including sarcasm and anger – that is often present in tweets with the same keywords – like “queer” – but very different meanings attached to their usage.
Sarah and I carefully considered the ethics of social media as a field site for this research, which was approved by my college’s Institutional Review Board. Much has been written about social media research ethics and whether research of platforms like Twitter constitutes a kind of “public” observation, raises new issues related to privacy, or necessitates rethinking approaches to informed consent.75 Sarah and I have intentionally considered tweets here in aggregate rather than reproducing individual tweets.
Drag Queen and Parent
For tweets associated with drag queen and parent, the primary associations were, in order of prominence: gender and sexual identity (lesbian, gay, homosexual, lgbtq, heterosexism, cissexism, Pride), sexual abuse/violence (pedophilia, sexual abuse, pornography, grooming, sexualization), content (too mature, appropriateness, indoctrination), parents’ choices and rights with respect to what their children learn and see (library and story hour), and the construction of childhood (special class, innocence, protection).
Drag Queen and Children
For tweets associated with drag queen and children, the primary associations were, in order of prominence: the construction of childhood (special class, innocence, protection), library and story hour, content (too mature, appropriateness, teaching of children), sexual abuse/violence (grooming, pedophilia, pornography, sexualization, non-consent, sex), gender and sexual identity (lgbtq, heterosexism, cissexism, Pride), and Proud Boys/domestic terrorism.
Disney and Parent
For tweets associated with Disney and parent, the primary associations were, in order of prominence: content (children’s movie, appropriateness, too mature, media’s influence), capitalism (profit, consumption), gender and sexual identity (lesbian, gay, homosexual, heterosexism, cissexism, lgbtq), Disney’s power (not good influence, controlling), and the construction of childhood (special class, innocence, protection).
Disney and Children
For tweets associated with Disney and children, the primary associations were, in order of prominence: children’s content (children’s movie, appropriateness, too mature, media’s influence, teaching of children), the construction of childhood (special class, innocence, protection), sexual abuse/violence (grooming, sexualization, non-consent, sex, targeting), and gender and sexual identity (lesbian, gay, homosexual, cissexism, lgbtq, drag). Somewhat unexpectedly, the positive associations of Disney with dreams, fairy tales, and other characteristically nostalgic renderings of the corporation’s cultural products represented only 2% of codes. For comparison, content-related codes represented 24% of codes, sexual abuse/violence-related codes made up 11% of codes, and childhood-related codes were 10% of codes.
Dolly Parton and Children
Beyond the Twitter announcements of the Imagination Library’s arrival in new locations, the primary associations with Dolly Parton and children remained library, books, and literacy. Tweets about Dolly were uniformly positive. There was only one tweet that came up when I searched “Dolly Parton” and “parent,” and it was a person pleased that their local news channel did a feature on Dolly’s upbringing.
Parents, Children, and Pedagogy within Tweets
There are remarkable parallels between tweets on drag queens and Disney in terms of emergent themes as they intersect with parenting, childhood, and pedagogy. For both, Twitter users commented on the construction of childhood, children’s content, sexual abuse/violence, and gender and sexual identity. And, on the whole, when negative, the message was the same: Drag queen story hour/Disney is a problem because it is exposing innocent children to gender- and sexuality-related content that is not appropriate. For both drag queens and Disney, there were slight variations on how people expressed these ideas in their tweets, especially in terms of the words that they used that ranged in their extremity – from “inappropriate” to “den of Satan” – but there was consistency. In particular, for both, “grooming” was a popular term used to describe their influence on children.76 Associating gender or sexuality non-conformity with “inappropriateness” is a product of cissexist and heterosexist thinking, thinking that hypersexualizes lgbtq+ folks in ways that cisgender and/or straight people are not.
Common complaints about Disney were related to what children were learning and included: Disney is too “woke,” has an “agenda,” and is “grooming” our children; Disney is not a good influence, is not wholesome, and is imposing its views about identity through its content without parental consent. In part, anti-Disney sentiment on Twitter during the summer of 2022 can be attributed to a concerted campaign launched by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis in Florida to characterize Disney as a “woke” company that is trying to “indoctrinate” the nation’s children after the company publicly opposed his Parental Rights in Education bill.77 However, much of the anti-Disney ire was directed at the film Lightyear – the backstory of famous space ranger Buzz Lightyear – which featured a brief kiss between Commander Hawthorne and her wife. Tweets were generally negative, though a few people on Twitter called out others’ hypocrisy for saying same-sex kisses were a problem whereas straight kisses were not. Words like “promoting,” “targeting,” “teaching,” “expose,” “impressionable,” “brainwash,” “agenda,” “groom,” and “push” are all related to learning. Other words and phrases that expressed discontent over what children are learning from Disney included: “perversion,” “sicko freaks,” and “den of Satan.” Some argued that Disney is now purposely sexualizing children along with drag queen story hours, which do the same, and so there is no such thing as “children’s content” anymore. Anti-Disney hashtags included: #DisneyIsTheDevil; #MyKidsDontEvenAsk2Go2Disneyland; #DoNotInvestInSodomy; #KeepKidsInnocent; and #GoWokeGoBroke. Pro-Disney hashtags included: #LoveNotHate and #LoveWins.
Common comments about drag queens were related to what children were learning and included: drag queens are grooming our children; and children are too young to learn about sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation. Use of words like “normalize,” “target,” “expose,” “groom,” “drag queen 101,” and “in front of” (as in, put on display in front of children) are all words related to learning. Other words and phrases that expressed discontent over what children are learning from drag queen story hours included “deviance,” “downfall,” “evil,” and “weirdos.” In contrast to the tweets on Disney and children, tweets were more evenly split between folks complaining about drag queen story hour and folks either defending it or expressing disbelief at the political focus on such a harmless event in the face of so many societal ills that folks could be worrying about. Some tweeted that children learn about sex anyway, typically from a heteronormative perspective, which is never called into question; others praised story hours as part of efforts teaching kids how to read within an inclusive context. There were not nearly as many hashtags associated with drag queens as there were with Disney, but negative hashtags were #Groomers and #Grooming. Politicians capitalized on news coverage of children at various Pride-related events during the month of June, including story hours, to call into question the intentions of parents who bring children to drag shows.78
There was a connection between reactions to drag queen story hours and Disney in terms of “content appropriateness” for children. While it is not always possible to tell if someone posting on Twitter is a parent (sometimes folks do say “my kids”), criticism that drag queen story hours and Disney “must be” teaching children their “agendas” was rampant.
In contrast, Dolly Parton’s beloved Imagination Library, arguably directly involved in educating children through free books sent by mail, was celebrated uniformly on Twitter, even though some of her books have messages similar to those in the books read at a drag queen story hour or in a recent Disney film. When a Kentucky state Senator recently questioned the content appropriateness of books in the Imagination Library, Dolly Parton’s sister, Stella Parton, quickly came to her defense in a public Twitter takedown of the “gop nimrods” responsible for questioning the program’s expansion in Kentucky.79 Tweets about Dolly Parton are clear and consistent: she is without fault; she is a philanthropist who gives out books to children; and she is a great role model. Hashtags associated with Dolly Parton and children included #ImaginationLibrary; #EveryChild; #Literacy; #WhatWouldDollyDo; and #wwdd.
In sum, people on social media worry about what children both are and are not learning and from whom.80 Given Disney’s time-honored popularity as emblematic of family-friendly content, widespread criticism of Disney by the average person for being too “radical” was surprising.81 While some Twitter users praised the company for pushing the envelope of representation in its newer films, a growing contingent called out the company for pushing a “woke agenda” that of late has focused on lgbtq+ identities. Similarly, with respect to drag queen story hours, some Twitter users supported these story hours as an important part of young children’s socialization and a fun way to encourage reading. Others, in heteronormative fashion, took issue with what they viewed as normalizing queer gender identities and sexual orientations.
Parents, Children, and Nostalgia within Tweets
There are noteworthy parallels between tweets on drag queens and Disney in terms of emergent themes as they intersect with parenting, childhood, and nostalgia. Any reading of nostalgia in tweets often has to be done “between the lines” by trying to ascertain to what a Twitter user is reacting. Are they reflecting on something lost or fundamentally changed? Is something as they knew it when they were children no longer around? Whether justified or not – that is, whether our political and cultural moment has created or inflated a threat where there is none – Twitter users are reacting to perceived change in terms of the past; their reactions are often made relevant to parenting struggles in the present and to questions they have about the future of children. In order for something to be perceived as having changed, there has to be an understanding of it as having been a certain way before. The merging of present- and future-oriented concerns with a reverence for the past in Twitter users’ comments reflects the complex temporal dimensions of nostalgia elaborated previously.82
Common comments about Disney’s children’s content included phrases and implicit sentiments like “no longer,” “good old days,” “Walt would not approve,” not what it “used to be,” what the company is “today,” or reflections on the brand itself (e.g., this is not what a Disney-Pixar film should be about, which suggests there is some previous identity being sullied). The implication of these negative tweets was that parents can no longer let their children watch Disney films without worrying about the content and, by implication, that this is not how it used to be. These debates about Disney intersect with others being had at the moment. For example, debates over the teaching of crt in schools invoke a kind of “nostalgia,” a longing to return to a time when white privilege went unquestioned within the curriculum.
Disney as nostalgia has often been the veneer that cushioned the company from harsher public criticism when its narratives were perceived to be ignorant or wrong (e.g., claims that Splash Mountain was racist).83 Still, some Twitter users called out others whose tweets about Disney were heterosexist or cissexist, specifically tweets that referred to Disney as “groomers” because of their “queer-friendly” films. The implication of these positive tweets is that society has changed, so these criticisms are overblown, out of touch, bigoted, or stuck in a problematic past.
Tweets associated with drag queens, children, and parents were about a series of societal changes that for some users were out of alignment with their heteronormative assumptions and thus represented a departure from what, for them, is “comfortable” or familiar. A look backward was implied by many of these tweets. In other words, something has changed or is different from their childhood. What is more, drag queens were mentioned in concert with a whole host of issues like immigration, inflation, high gas prices, abortion, gun rights, and same-sex marriage. Similar to tweets about Disney, some Twitter users called out other users whose tweets about drag queens were anti-queer. The implication of these positive tweets is that society has changed so these criticisms are overblown, out of touch, bigoted, or stuck in a problematic past.
For families who are supportive of the crackdown on race-, gender-, and sexuality-related minority rights, what we may be seeing, in addition to outright bigotry, is parents’ ill-founded fears that their children will be “worse off” if they lose the privileges that the parents had when they were children. Tweets become fleeting, defensive, or angry attempts to hold onto power. Hence, their negative commentary on perceived social changes – drag queens are a joke, and Disney is too woke. For families who support initiatives aimed at inclusion and/or are outraged by the backlash against minority rights, the important symbolic work that is accomplished by drag queen story hour and Disney’s speaking out against legislation that harms already marginalized communities is crucial to furthering social change.
OK Groomer? Dolly and Nostalgia’s Armor
And then there is Dolly Parton. Similar to Disney historically, Dolly functions in the popular imagination as a kind of nostalgia – she really has not changed much at all over the course of her career. Her appearance, style, demeanor, creative energy, charitability, love of country and community, and sound have remained steady over the years. She exemplifies middle America, hard work, and rags to riches success. She does it all in a highly stylized femininity so extreme, so glitzed, so blindingly beautiful that Dolly herself came in second place in a Dolly Parton drag competition.84 Dolly is “sonic nostalgia” created by a “white, Southern, multi-millionaire boomer who produces self-consciously white music while wearing the stylized drag of a fallen Southern belle.”85
Dolly does good and is good; Dolly has always done good and been good. She is a self-proclaimed ally to people of all races, gender identities, sexual orientations, and classes. As an Appalachian businesswoman, she gives back to her community. Uncontroversial as a vaccine investor, children’s book donator, Black Lives Matter supporter, queer rights advocate, Dolly has not faced the criticism that other nostalgia giant in this essay, Disney, has. As stated, tweets about Dolly Parton were consistently positive. Most tweets praised the Imagination Library’s work.
A play on the popular putdown, “OK Boomer,” “OK Groomer” is a phrase used to shut down anyone who advocates for teaching more inclusive gender and sexuality content in schools. While defenders of Disney have been effectively “OK Groomered,” Dolly Parton has remained unscathed, even though she is a well-known ally to queer folks. There has been a lot of well-researched commentary on why this might be: Dolly’s whiteness is a form of drag that obscures some of her more progressive political stances;86 Dolly is skilled at keeping things to herself through charm, wit, and humor, often self-deprecating;87 and Dolly is a “shapeshifter” with a knack for being “exactly what you want her to be, depending on the angle.”88
Disney, on the other hand, has suffered an authenticity crisis. In our polarized political climate, the company’s initial silence on “Don’t Say Gay” followed by outspoken criticism of the law had the potential to alienate nearly all of their employees and fans.89 With this course of action, Disney could no longer pretend to be everything to everyone. Fond associations with the past and hopeful associations for the future – what had been core elements of Disney’s identity – were suddenly questioned by a devoted fan base spanning the political spectrum. Disney’s actions became a contradiction from any angle.
The Dolly Parton Moment owes a lot to nostalgia. She has simply lived long enough, performed at a high level for enough years that we can spare the warm fuzzies she inspires in us. Nostalgia blunts the politics that produces all art, especially middlebrow art of the kind Parton creates.90
And while she is the definition of spectacle, and while she is certainly political, she has rarely made a spectacle of her politics.91 To put it in the form of a popular meme on Twitter, “Dolly Parton” and “Nostalgia” would be above the shaking hands emoji, which would be labeled with “Warm Fuzzies.”
Conclusion: From the Ballot Box to the Sandbox
Drag queens are “too explicit” for children. Disney princesses are “too woke” for children. But the Queen of Country remains everyone’s favorite “fairy godmother” of literacy. Ours is a cultural moment in which children are viewed both as a path to future and the road to maintaining the status quo, which, as I have shown, has positioned them at the intersection of concerns about what they are learning and in what context (pedagogy) as opposed to how it has “always been” (nostalgia). This is reflected in social media conversations.
Drag- and Disney-related Twitter chatter shines a light on a broader assault on rights that is using our children as political playthings. As a conservative activist stated in reference to the Republican Party’s uptake of issues related to gender identity, “It’s really the fear – and I think the legitimate fear – that my child will essentially be recruited into a new identity.”92 “Parental control” is considered a winning political strategy.93
While placing children and their parents at the center of political debates in the United States is not new, the volume has been turned up on the debate over who should or should not be “parenting” the nation’s children and why. Both online and offline, parents are told to worry that their children are under the constant threat of improper learning: “indoctrination” makes kids feel guilty;94 crt is being taught to young children in our nation’s schools and serves to divide children not unite them;95 discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation is not appropriate for children;96 and Disney is pushing an agenda.97 Kate Isenberg’s cartoon below, for example, circulated on my social media at the end of January 2023 and encapsulates the present debates.98 Nostalgia, rooted in heteronormative expectations, plays a role in parents’ “fears,” and often takes the form of “this conflicts with our core values as Americans” or “changes today have gone too far.” Social media is alive with such criticism all day, every day, to the tune of thousands upon thousands of likes and reposts.99
What is particularly unsettling about the present analysis is the way in which anti-queerness is masquerading as concern for the nation’s children. There has been a surge of proposed policies that have as their aim to erase lgbtq identities. Schools are banning lgbtq+-friendly signage like rainbow stickers citing parents’ concerns about favoritism for students seeking a safe space.100 Two proposed West Virginia bills would prohibit “any transvestite and/or transgender exposure, performances or display to any minor,” effectively deeming trans identity as a kind of “obscene matter.”101 Florida lawmakers are contemplating expanding “Don’t Say Gay” to include other grade levels beyond the third grade. And Florida’s Board of Education is considering a rule to strip teachers of their teaching certificates if they do not notify parents of changes to their child’s “health and wellbeing,” which would include things like the use of a different name or pronouns.102 Indeed, in the early weeks of 2023, as legislative sessions begin, we are already seeing numerous bills proposed across the country that deal with matters of parenting, “protecting” children, and questions of gender identity and sexual orientation.103 Instead of protecting them from harm, these measures make all children, but especially queer children, less safe.104 In a cultural context that associates risk and parenting, this may suggest a kind of political “risk entrepreneurship,”105 in which politicians amplify parental fears about harm to their children to motivate their support. In short, interested in gains at the ballot box, politicians are coming for the sandbox.
I would like to thank Antonio De Lauri and reviewers for their comments. I would like to thank Centre College and the Faculty Development Committee for their support of this research. I would also like to thank my undergraduate student research assistant, Sarah Koch. Sarah made significant contributions to the research and writing of this essay.
Cissexism may be defined as a devaluation of transgender identity; heterosexism may be defined as a devaluation of non-straight sexual orientations. Together, cissexism and heterosexism uphold as dominant cisgender and straight identities.
Grooming is a term used to describe an adult’s manipulation of a child in order to sexually abuse them. Users in this study often deploy the term in heterosexist fashion, for example, when criticizing drag queens reading to children in libraries as “groomers.”
Tensley, B. (2022). “Proud Boys crashed Drag Queen Story Hour at a local library. It was part of a wider movement.” cnn, July 21. www.cnn.com.
Weaver, M. (2022). “Lightyear’s same-sex kiss – the controversy that led to Disney’s first ‘real’ lgbtq+ representation.” The Conversation. June 16. www.theconversation.com; see also Shenton, J. (2022). “What’s Behind the Backlash to Lightyear’s Animated Kiss?” sapiens. September 6. www.sapiens.org.
In certain instances, I put “fear/s” in quotation marks to draw attention to the way in which “phobias” have been misused to describe particular forms of discrimination – e.g., “homophobia” – and thus employ medicalizing language for illegitimate reasons.
Watson, E. (2022). “Gov. Glenn Youngkin bans Critical Race Theory from K-12 schools.” 13News Now, January 17. www.13newsnow.com.
Klibanoff, E., and Oxner, R. (2022). “Texas’ child welfare agency ordered to investigate trans kids’ families has been in crisis for years.” The Texas Tribune, March 11. www.texastribune.org.
Fuller, J. (2022). “What Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Law Means for Teachers.” npr, April 5. www.npr.org.
Whitten, S. (2022). “Disney vows to help repeal ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law, says Florida Gov. DeSantis shouldn’t have signed it.” cnbc, March 28. www.cnbc.com.
Watkins, M., and McLaren, M. (2022). “Stella Parton lashes out at Kentucky lawmaker, Stephen Meredith.” Courier-Journal, March 3.
Blackburn, M. (2022). Sen. Marsha Blackburn on Twitter: “Disney won’t say ‘boys and girls,’ and schools are teaching children critical race theory. The left has launched a full-blown assault on American values.” www.twitter.com.
Thomas, J. (2022). “Disney Addresses Removal of ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls’ in Video.” Newsweek, March 29. www.newsweek.com.
Fineout, G. (2022). “DeSantis targets Disney’s self-governing status in escalation over ‘Don’t Say Gay.’” Politico, April 19. www.politico.com.
Press-Reynolds, K. (2022). “‘Grooming’ and ‘pro-pedophile’ surge as conservative buzzwords amid battle over ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill.” Insider, April 15. www.insider.com.
Jackson, J. (2022). “Right-Wing Writer Says Cancel Disney for Dollywood – Park Owned by lgbtq Icon.” Newsweek, April 8.
Meko, H. (2022). “Man Charged With Threatening Racist Violence Against Buffalo Supermarket.” The New York Times, July 22. www.nytimes.com.
Kennedy, M. (2022). “21 crosses stand in front of Uvalde’s Robb Elementary to honor those who were killed.” npr, May 26. www.npr.org.
Cavallier, A. (2022). “Sarah Huckabee Sanders lashed for saying kids in womb will be as safe as those in classroom.” Daily Mail, June 27. www.dailymail.co.uk.
Falcon, R. (2022). “Dallas drag queen event for kids sparks outrage, defense.” The Hill, June 7.www.thehill.com.
Livingston, A. (2022). “Fourth grade Uvalde survivor testifies that she covered herself in another student’s blood to survive shooter.” The Texas Tribune, June 8. www.texastribune.org.
Del Barco, M. (2022). “Lawmakers propose to ban children from drag shows.” npr, June 16. www.npr.org. See also: Tensley, B. (2022).
Kaur, H. (2022). “A movie theater won’t fast-forward a same-sex kiss in ‘Lightyear’ after all.” cnn. June 23. www.cnn.com
Sullivan, B. (2022). “A gop congresswoman said the end of Roe is a ‘historic victory for white life.’” npr, June 26. www.npr.org.
Pearson, R., and Gorner, J. (2022). “US Rep. Mary Miller’s ‘white life’ comment is latest controversy in her short two years in Congress.” Chicago Tribune, June 26. www.chicagotribune.com.
Holpuch, A. (2022). “What We Know About the Shooting in Highland Park.” The New York Times, July 7. www.nytimes.com.
Pendharkar, E. (2023). “New Training Tells Florida School Librarians Which Books Are Off-Limits.” EducationWeek, January 18. www.edweek.org.
Elsesser, K. (2023). “M&M’s Ditches Spokescandies After Backlash, Here’s Why It Matters.” Forbes, January 23. www.forbes.com.
Shenton, J. (2020). “Divided we tweet: The social media poetics of public online shaming.” Cultural Dynamics 32(3): 170–195.
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Hoyt, K. D. (2016). “The affect of the hashtag: #HandsUpDontShoot and the body in peril.” Explorations in Media Ecology 15(1): 33–54.
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Shenton, J. (2020). pp. 172–176.
Dimock, M., and Wike, R. (2021). “America Is Exceptional in Its Political Divide.” The Pew Charitable Trusts. www.pewtrusts.org.
Furedi, F. (2002). Paranoid Parenting: Why Ignoring the Experts May be Best for Your Child. Chicago Review Press. p. 106.
Doucleff, M. (2022). “‘Old Enough!’ on Netflix sparks debate over sending very young kids on errands.” npr, April 20. www.npr.org.
Fuentes, A. (2022). “Biological Science Rejects the Sex Binary, and That’s Good for Humanity.” sapiens, May 11. www.sapiens.org.
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Lee, E., Bristow, J., Faircloth, C., and Macvarish, J. (2014). p. 3.
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Lee, E., Bristow, J., Faircloth, C., and Macvarish, J. (2014). p. 7.
Lee, E., Bristow, J., Faircloth, C., and Macvarish, J. (2014). p. 8.
Lee, E., Bristow, J., Faircloth, C., and Macvarish, J. (2014). p. 9.
Doucleff, M. (2022).
Lee, E., Bristow, J., Faircloth, C., and Macvarish, J. (2014). p. 11.
Lee, E., Bristow, J., Faircloth, C., and Macvarish, J. (2014). p. 12.
Lee, E., Bristow, J., Faircloth, C., and Macvarish, J. (2014). p. 12.
Lee, E., Bristow, J., Faircloth, C., and Macvarish, J. (2014). p. 12.
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Lee, E., Bristow, J., Faircloth, C., and Macvarish, J. (2014). p. 14.
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Lancy, D. F., Bock, J. and Gaskins, S. (2010). p. 154.
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Harro, B. (2018). “The Cycle of Socialization.” In Maurianne Adams, Warren J. Blumenfeld, D. Chase J. Catalano, Keri “Safire” DeJong, Heather W. Hackman, Larissa E. Hopkins, Barbara J. Love, Madeline L. Peters, Davey Shlasko, Ximena Zúñiga, eds. Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, 4th ed. Routledge, pp. 27–34.
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Angé, O., and Berliner, D., eds. (2016). p. 4.
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See “ambiguous temporality” in Lems, A. (2016). “Ambiguous longings: Nostalgia as the interplay among self, time and world.” Critique of Anthropology 36(4): 419–438. See also: Gilbert, A. (2019). “Beyond nostalgia: Other historical emotions.” History and Anthropology 30(3): 293–312.
Gilbert, A. (2019).
Lems, A. (2016). p. 421.
Gilbert, A. (2019). p. 296.
Smith, L., and Campbell, G. (2017). “‘Nostalgia for the future’: memory, nostalgia and the politics of class.” International Journal of Heritage Studies 23(7): 612–627.
Angé, O., and Berliner, D., eds. (2016). pp. 4–5.
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See Bailey, M. (2015). “#transform(ing)dh Writing and Research: An Autoethnography of Digital Humanities and Feminist Ethics.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 9(2). See also Fuchs, C. 2018. “‘Dear Mr. Neo-Nazi, can you please give me your informed consent so that I can quote your fascist tweet?’: Questions of social media research ethics in online ideology critique.” In The Routledge Companion to Media and Activism, 1st ed. pp. 385–395.
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Wallace-Wells, B. (2022).
Falcon, R. (2022).
Watkins, M., and McLaren, M. (2022).
Though not addressed in this article, debates over crt are part of parents’ worries: some are concerned about whitewashing, revisionist history, or the erasure of the past; in contrast, others, typically white parents, worry about their children being “bullied” or made to feel guilty about the past.
With respect to Disney specifically, scholars have long critiqued the company for what is termed “Disneyfication,” or the rewriting of complex narratives of history and identity to be consistent with Disney’s core values (see Giroux, H. A., and Pollock, G. (2010); see also Edwards, L. H. (1999). “The United Colors of ‘Pocahontas’: Synthetic Miscegenation and Disney’s Multiculturalism.” Narrative 7(2): 147–168).
While tweet analysis has its benefits – the “temperature-taking” I spoke about earlier – it also has its drawbacks, one of which is depth. Tweets are brief and do not always provide insight into the identities of users. I intentionally did not analyze the profiles of individual users from whom tweets that I analyzed came and instead chose to focus on tweets in aggregate since I did not gather informed consent from any user to participate in this study. My analysis uses nostalgia as a way of understanding how Twitter users are interpreting what they perceive as a “deviation from” the past since these kinds of worries are what came through so clearly in the sample of tweets.
Mallenbaum, C. (2020). “Why people are petitioning Disney to give Splash Mountain a ‘Princess and the Frog’ makeover.” USA Today, June 12. www.usatoday.com.
Aman, M. (2021). “Dolly Parton Once Entered a Dolly Look-Alike Contest and Lost – To a Man.” Woman’s World. https://www.womansworld.com.
Cottom, T. M. (2021).
Zoladz, L. (2019). “Is There Anything We Can All Agree On? Yes: Dolly Parton.” The New York Times, November 21. www.nytimes.com.
White, A. (2020). “Dolly Parton’s politics hide in plain sight, whether she admits it or not.” The Independent, November 27. www.independent.co.uk.
Ceballos, A. (2022). “How Disney worked behind the scenes against the ‘don’t say gay’ bill.” Tampa Bay Times, March 12.
Cottom, T. M. (2021).
Mayer, P. (2021). “Dolly Parton Says She Turned Down Presidential Medal Of Freedom – Twice.” npr, February 2. www.npr.org.
Wallace-Wells, B. (2022). “The Political Strategy of Ron DeSantis’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill.” The New Yorker, June 28. www.newyorker.com.
Wallace-Wells, B. (2022).
Freireich, A., and Platzer, B. (2021). “Homeroom: I’m Concerned About Wokeness at My Child’s School.” The Atlantic, May 5. www.theatlantic.com.
Sawchuk, S. (2021). “What Is Critical Race Theory, and Why Is It Under Attack?” Education Week, May 18. www.edweek.org.
Izaguirre, A., and Gomez Licon, A. (2022). “‘Don’t Say Gay’ law brings worry, confusion to Florida schools.” pbs. www.pbs.org.
Robertson, D. (2022). “Disney Didn’t Leave the gop Behind – Culture Did.” Politico, April 17. www.politico.com.
Isenberg, K. (2023). “I don’t want my kids reading books that make them feel bad about being big and bad.” Alta Weekly Cartoon: Altatude 6(22), www.altaonline.com
For an example see Blackburn, M. (2022).
Owen, G. (2023). “School bans ‘safe space’ signs after parents complained about favoritism for lgbtq+ kids.” lgbtq Nation, January 20. www.lgbtqnation.com.
Yurcaba, Jo. (2023). “Under West Virginia bills, exposing minors to transgender people could be a crime.” nbc News, January 20. www.nbcnews.com.
San Felice, S. (2023). “lgbtq advocates prepare to fight possible ‘Don’t Say Gay’ expansion.” Axios, January 19. www.axios.com.
Watrobski, K. (2023). “Parental rights top state agendas as legislative sessions get underway.” Fox17 wztv Nashville, January 10. www.Fox17.com. See also: Thoreson, R. (2022). “US State Readies First Anti-Transgender Bill of 2023.” Human Rights Watch, November 18. www.hrw.org.
“Issues Impacting lgbtq Youth: Polling Presentation.” (2023). The Trevor Project, www.thetrevorproject.org.
Lee, E., Bristow, J., Faircloth, C., and Macvarish, J. (2014). p. 19.